The First World War had a profound effect not only on my family, but also on the entire population of the Istria peninsula of northern Italy, from Trieste to Fiume. Even though the area had been under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for more than two centuries, the official language remained Italian.
When the war broke out, my grandfather, Lodovico Rubessa, and all the conscripted men of the region, found themselves fighting for the Austrian side on the Russian front. He was killed in 1915 near Tarnopol in the Ukraine, leaving behind his widow, Maria, and an infant daughter, Elsa, my mother.
The 1919 Treaty of Paris declared the city of Fiume a Free State. In 1924 the city was annexed by Italy, only to be ceded to Yugoslavia in 1947, and renamed Rijeka (both Fiume and Rijeka are the respective Italian and Croatian words for “river”). This is now Croatia.
It is said that a person born in Fiume in 1914 and who lived there until 1993, changed countries five times without leaving home. In my family, although we were all born in Fiume, my mother was born Austrian, I was born Italian and my brother was born Yugoslav. All these events were the direct result of the First World War.
For anyone interested in a masterly and entertaining account of the aftereffects of the First World War, I recommend Margaret McMillan’s brilliant “Paris 1919”.